Advent Porch Light

Turn on a porch light and welcome somebody home.

Where is the porch light?
We long for its steady promise
to appear somewhere out there
as we journey wintry roads.

Longing for light, we wander.

Someone has lit a lamp.
An obligato flame dances,
comforts aching eyes,
choreographs bone-tired feet.

Seeing the light, we follow.

The mountain house keeps vigil,
Watches through the night.
Waits up for heart-weary travelers
to find their way home.

Sharing the light, we wonder.

Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Isaiah offers our first image for Advent this year (see Isaiah 2:1-5):

2The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. . .[C]ome let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

Isaiah 2

In the prophet’s vision, we see a mountain in the distance and crowds of people streaming toward a house on the mountain. A lush garden surrounds the house (at least as I imagine it). The garden has been cultivated by swords and spears that have been refashioned into plowshares and ruining hooks.

What does this mountain house image mean for the 2019 Advent season?

I am always glad when I come home after dark and Sheila has turned on the porch light. When I drive up and the light is on, I know that someone is waiting for me. Watching for me. When I drive up and the porch light is on, I know I am home.

I hope this year’s Advent waiting includes a porch light liturgy for those whose hearts and bodies ache for home. What do I mean by this? I hear a double call to action in Isaiah. We are called to keep seeking home—God’s home where the walls are built of justice, love, and peace. We cannot settle down and abide anything less than this. We are also called to keep vigil. We are called to watch through the night for homesick travelers who need for-now dwelling places.

We are approaching the winter solstice—the longest night of the year. People in our lives—people in our world—are bone-tired from wandering uncertain roads. One part of our Advent liturgy—of our work as God’s people—may just be to turn on a porch light and welcome somebody home.

Going Home, Home

God calls us to come home to our most authentic selves and then to be home for others who are seeking.

Photo by Sheila Hunter

My friend told me this story.

She was hiking down into the Grand Canyon on a rather warm day. A family passed by her going the opposite direction–out of the Canyon.

My friend overheard the young girl in the family lament to her mother:

“Mom, I want to go home.”

Her mom answered. “We will be home soon. When we get to the top–just up there–we will go back to our hotel and eat and rest.”

The girl’s response?

“No, Mom. I don’t want to go to the hotel. I want to go home-home.”

Being or finding or going home is difficult and painful for many people. This is the case for all sorts of reasons.

  • Consider the woman who moved for a job or a relationship and is struggling to get connected to a new community;
  • Or the teenager who ran away from a house that was never really home.
  • What about the family that escaped across a border of some kind and now can neither go back not see a way to go forward?
  • What about those people who can’t seem to feel at home in their own lives or even their own bodies?
Longing for home

Strangers in a strange land. Wandering. Seeking. So many people in our world today, at some time in their lives, long for home, even if they are not sure what home means for them.

For some of these people, faith communities become home. Or faith communities become home-like staying places, in-the-meanwhile dwelling places, for people whose lives are on the way to—well to many, often unknown, somewheres.

Or faith communities perhaps can become a for-now home. I long for this to be so.

“Not going home”

An unexpected image of “home”–along with the refrain of “not going home”–has gone viral on my Facebook feed this week. People who support women who preach have found in the phrase, “not going home,” a prophetic digital way to respond to and resist evangelical leader John MacArthur’s recent statement telling evangelist Beth Moore to “go home.”

“Home” also stands out to me in this week’s lectionary text, Luke 18:9-14. At the end of this parable that features a tax collector and a Pharisee, the tax collector goes”down to his home justified.” Read other insights about this parable in yesterday’s post and see the full text of the parable at the bottom of this post.

These two accounts–the ancient parable and the trending Facebook post–are coinciding or colliding or perhaps colluding this week to stir unexpected thoughts for me about “home.”

What I am considering as a result of this collusion is this:

What new and life-giving theological possibilities for our times can we discover in images of “home” and “going home”?

At home in the role of wanderer

In the parable, the tax collector goes home from the temple “justified.” Having sought God in humility–in deep recognition of his humanness–he is grounded anew in God’s care and mercy for him. The tax collector goes home with a new sense of belonging within God’s love and grace. He may still be regarded in contempt by those who deem themselves more righteous than they think he is, but he can dwell in his own life knowing that he is a beloved child of God. He can go home justified.

And yet, even that profound image of going home contains a bittersweet reality. “Home” for people of faith is, in large measure, a life of seeking and wandering and wondering.

What does that mean?

Poet Denise Levertov writes of being “too much at home in the role of wanderer.”

Perhaps faith calls us to be at home, if you will, in the role of wanderer. Restless for justice. Always searching for healing, hope, grace. At home in the role of wanderer until we one day cross the border into God’s not yet commonwealth.

That, perhaps, is the power of Gospel wisdom. Jesus’ followers can never stop seeking. Not until all of the hungry are fed and violence has been stopped and no one feels the sting of exclusion. Not until all have opened themselves to God’s love and are empowered to go out into the world and love others, freed from both arrogance and shame.

But Levertov’s poem says that we risk being too much at home in the role of wanderers.

Some are too much at home in the role of wanderer,
watcher, listener; who, by lamplit doors
that open only to another’s knock,
commune with shadows and are happier
with ghosts than living guests in a warm house.

Levertov

Sounds like a conundrum, doesn’t it? We are called to be justice-seeking wanderers. We are also called to be at home in God’s love. Whew!

I think God’s call to people of faith in the midst of this conundrum is to pray and work together to imagine and create home—welcoming, non-judging, nourishing—home-for-now for all people who are seeking after God’s resting places of justice, grace, and peace.

This is not easy work. It takes courage. And a whole lot of grace.

Called to be home-home

But the call remains. We are called to be home for those whose lives are broken. To be home for our communities’ strangers. To be home for those whose stories have left them isolated, alone, without hope. We are called to be home for now until all of us–wandering people that we are–finally can go “home-home.”

In the case of many amazing and prophetic women I have been blessed to know? They are at home in the role of preachers. Their home-home is in a pulpit. By saying “yes” to God’s call to be proclaimers of God’s justice, love and grace, they have embraced something central to their identity. And they have come home to themselves as Gospel proclaimers, justified by God.

Come home free

I am reminded of an old time version of a kids’ game—hide-and-seek. Maybe some of you remember the “song” that goes with the game? “Ollie, Ollie oxen frei.” This is what those who have been found sing out to the one who has been hiding the longest—to the one not yet found: “Ollie, Ollie oxen frei.”

An approximate rendering of the German phrase is this: The game is finished. All is forgiven. You can come home free.

We are all to varying degrees both Pharisee and tax collector. We are also neither tax collector nor Pharisee. We are human. We are exalted dust. And a God who never stops seeking for us calls us every day to come home to our most authentic selves–

I pray that we can remember and live this wisdom.

By God’s grace, let us be places where restless and yearning wanderers, found by God’s grace, can come home-home free.



While waiting for the dust to settle—

Dust tells a story.

“We are waiting for the dust to settle.”

This idiom is alive and well in many communities—congregations, institutions, families, neighborhoods. We live, I think, in betwixt and between times, experiencing all of the uncertainties that arise in the midst of transitions.

Many things are up in the air all around folks these days. Some people are in between jobs or discerning how to respond to tough questions about their lives. Others are in the midst of changes in their families. And others face bitter and painful realities of transitions caused by forces beyond their control.

As a divinity school professor and interim dean, I am reminded every day that theological education is in the midst of change as religious landscapes across the U.S. shift and as people from many different religious backgrounds redefine how they understand spirituality. The dust of religious identity in the U.S. is unsettled, and when dust is unsettled, it can be hard to get a clear view of the future.

I offer here a few words of hope in the midst of unsettled dust.

A dusty story of creative hope.

Dust tells a story. Dust tells our story as human beings created in God’s image.

The Genesis creation story depicts God forming human beings from dust–from humus, the soil of the earth. As a religious image in biblical and Christian liturgical traditions, dust is referred to as the stuff of which humans are made and stuff to which humans return upon death. I explored this image from a different perspective in an earlier post.

As I think today about unsettled dust, the biblical and religious images of dust and creation remind me that human beings are in their very physicality part of the earth and with that reality comes a responsibility for care for the earth and its communities. Dust, even the unsettled kind, fertilizes the future, if you will. We, as creatures of dust, are the soil in which the future is planted.

Called to authentic dusty-ness

The reality of unsettled dust also invites us to rethink the meaning of “humility.” This week’s Revised Common Lectionary text is Luke 18:9-14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Much more can be said about this text and has been by biblical scholars and preachers (and will be said by yours truly in a sermon this Sunday at Sedgefield Presbyterian Church). For this post, the last phrases of the parable are striking to me:

“. . . for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18: 14

What do I hear in these phrases? Again, the word “humus” comes to mind. Humus, humanity, humility—all three words share a linguistic relationship and a theological one.

Authentic humility is about recognizing our dusty-ness and remembering that God breathes life into us each and every day. God also calls us each and every day fully to be our dusty selves and out of that earthy authenticity to love each other and care for all creation.

Waiting for the dust to settle

When we are betwixt and between, we are tempted to be impatient for the dust to settle, for things to get back to an imagined and mythic normal. The danger? We might settle those things in our lives or our communities that need to remain unsettled until justice can be done or until healing can occur.

Also, if we are honest, we have to admit that most of life and living happens betwixt and between. Perhaps if we embrace the ambiguity of human life and recommit ourselves to relying on God’s grace and mercy, we can begin to unsettle “settled certainties” that perpetuate oppression and injustice.

Life is never settled—not really. But the promise of God’s love for us is. Because of that, we are called never to settle down or settle in until all people can share in the good gifts of God’s justice and peace.

Dancing with dust

So, I offer a word of encouragement to those of us who find ourselves in a swirl of unsettled dust. Perhaps if we lean into the ambiguity of unsettling times we will hear God creating and calling. And perhaps, if we are willing to take the chance, we will learn to dance and swirl with unsettled dust and in doing so prepare the soil of our lives and communities in the belief that Gospel justice and peace beyond imagining await us in the days ahead.

Posthumous Functionality?

Many of us yearn for immortality or at least to know that some residual reminder or evidence of our existence will remain when all that is left of us is our remains.

What remains–

My mother died almost three years ago. We get mail addressed to her almost every week, even from businesses and vendors who have gotten a message from me about her death.

Today when the mail carrier came to our house, our friend John was visiting. John, Sheila, and I were standing on the sidewalk out front. The mail carrier handed Sheila our mail. She thumbed through it, handed me an envelope, and said, “Can’t you tell these people to stop sending mail to your mother!”

I said back to her, “I have already told them–twice. I don’t think we will ever stop getting mail for her.”

John offered sage wisdom in response: “I guess that is the real sign of our immortality.”

We all laughed.

And I began to think about immortality. What else is a theologian to do, after all?

In search of digital immortality?

John then shared a related story about his Facebook account. Not too long ago he received a communication from Facebook asking him who he wants to “leave” his Facebook account to when he dies.

“I guess that is another way to be immortal,” John said.

I Googled “Facebook immortality.” While “immortality” did not score many hits on the search, something else did–a 2015 news headline:

Facebook introduced a new legacy contact feature in the U.S. on Thursday–allowing users to choose who can manage their accounts once they’ve died–and it’s something we should all think about activating. . . Facebook follows Google in providing this type of posthumous functionality, and we expect other sites to follow suit.

Amy Mae Turner, February, 2015
Or posthumous functionality?

Posthumous functionality. Now, there’s a concept to puzzle, if not bemuse, a theologian.

The word “posthumous” is related to “humus,” or ground.

A biblical and liturgical insight comes to mind for me when I hear the word “humus”:

You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Genesis 3:19, NRSV

The biblical book of Genesis depicts God forming the first human out of the dust of the ground. Then God puts the human in the Garden of Eden “to till it and keep it.”

We are mortal. We are from the earth. Spirit-infused, scientifically and biologically astounding dust but still a configuration of dust. And many of us yearn for immortality, or at least to know that some residual reminder or evidence of our existence will remain when all that is left of us is our remains. Or we ache for our lives to have mattered. Or we hope that when our days come to an end we will have made some sort of difference in the world.

This is not the first time in recent weeks I have wondered about what might happen in the future to all of our digital artifacts. Will technology change so much that photos and other memorabilia stored in the cloud will one day just become incompatible and irretrievable?

But I digress.

For those of us who are dust and will return to the dust, what is our posthumous functionality?

Really?

Sustaining life
Photo by Sheila G. Hunter. Used by permission.

Classical theological discussions of immortality come to mind here. Immortality has to do with what happens after physical death, with eternal life in some traditions, with the afterlife as it is understood in diverse religious traditions. Immortality has something to do with what we believe about what happens when we die.

My thinking today about immortality took a different direction as John, Sheila, and I stood on the sidewalk at the end of a workday. As we talked about never-ending junk mail and everlasting Facebook accounts, another word came to mind for me–“sustainable.”

What if we yearned for sustainability–of the earth, of communal well-being, of relationships–rather than for immortality?

I am still reflecting on what this idea means for how I live day to day. I use my Facebook account quite a bit, and I have numerous photos and documents stored in the cloud. I am writing these ideas on my WordPress blog, and I have a YouTube channel. Where will all of that data be in a decade or two? Who knows. And who knows what the digital “me” will look or sound like when the dusty me has expired.

Called to till and tend

For today at least, I find myself hoping that I can do my part toward sustaining this humus, this speck of cosmic dust we call earth–tilling and tending it so that it is healthy and life-giving for future generations. And I believe that sustaining the earth and our human community requires that I do what I can to engender justice, compassion and reconciliation in the places where I live, work and play.

John didn’t say how he responded to Facebook’s “legacy” invitation. What I know about John’s legacy is this: he lives a life of kind generosity, and I consider him kindred.

And my mom? Well, she lives on in quite a few direct mail databases. But more than that, her life is sustained in and through mine, and for that I give thanks.

dust

I am dust; to dust I shall always return.
But don’t assume as you disturb my rest

with your omnipotent kitchen broom that
I am mere debris to be swept up and away.

Remember. We are interfused, you
and I, suspended in each other,

vestigial particles of endless galaxies,
diminishing and becoming, deposited

but for a moment amid yesterday’s dinner
crumbs and dog hair. Tomorrow?

I am cyclonic, whirling through dry valleys;
And I am the cadence of the soil, eternity

dug up in a spade and sown with ordinary
mystery. Still, don’t assume I am magic either,

or that you are, except when in a distant
sun-soaked garden we tango with the departing

light and time’s muted colors bend onto our
backs and we carry life across ancient seas

to fertilize the future. Remember. You are
dust; to dust you shall forever return.

It’s the Great Pumpkin Season, Charlie Brown!

I have a different theory altogether about the origins of manufacturers’ efforts to pumpkin spice the world at the start of each September.

Pumpkin Season is here!

…pumpkin spice lattes
…pumpkin spice bagels
…pumpkin spice donuts
…pumpkin spice pound cake
…pumpkin spice pancakes
…and, yes, even pumpkin spice Cheerios

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter. Used by permission.

But wait. Am I misrepresenting the season? Am I on the verge of doing a terrible disservice to the noble pumpkin that hales from the Cucurbita genus and is therefore a great aunt to cucumbers, melons, and squash?

Yes, I can almost hear the exasperated eye-rolls of the pumpkin season deniers and pumpkin purists. The 65,900 acres of pumpkins harvested in the US in 2018 (according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service) were not grown in soil seasoned with cinnamon and cloves. None of the more than 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins that turned those acres orange last fall tasted or smelled anything like a latte.

That’s because pumpkin and pumpkin spice products are connected in name only, right?

A Matter of Taste
Photo by Jill Crainshaw.

Five spices make up the addictive (at least to some people) flavors in the famous (or is it infamous) “Pumpkin Spice Latte” (PSL): cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice. These spices, mixed together in various proportions into coffee or cake batter or ice cream, somehow make some of us think “pumpkin.”

And I have to admit that even to a pumpkin season devotee like me, this is something of a curiosity. Like my friend says, “Pumpkin itself has no taste—lots of nutrients—but no taste.”

Well, I suppose the whole debate over Pumpkin Season actually is a matter of taste. And I have to admit, while I think pumpkin does have a taste, a pumpkin picked from my backyard garden and baked in my kitchen oven doesn’t taste or smell like a PSL.

Over the Harvest Moon about Pumpkin Spice Everything
As pictured online in an advertisement.

So—what ignited the pumpkin spice craze that led to over $80,000,000 worth of PSL sales in 2018? Why are so many people so over the harvest moon about pumpkin spice everything? And, as an aside, if you will, who is buying that Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice Beard Oil I saw on my newfeed? (Even this pumpkin fan was surprised to discover this addition to the seasonal offerings!)

A 2015 BBC News Magazine author, Vanessa Bradford, sought answers to these questions. She interviewed food scientist, Kantha Shelke, who offered this insight:

“Pumpkin is not a favourite food. Children and many adults often avoid pumpkin as they do rutabagas and some root vegetables. But many of us believe we should be happier (and nicer and more giving) during the holidays and pumpkin-spice products are just one of those things – like juniper and pine and wood burning stoves and fireplaces – that can change our frame of mind.”

Kantha Shelke

Does this mean we can attribute skyrocketing pumpkin spice everything sales to nostalgia, marketing, and social media hype along with a rather bittersweet (which is not a PSL flavor) desire for a particular mind-and-heart-set?

The Great Pumpkin Theory

I, for one, am eager for transformed hearts and minds. But I don’t really think PSLs or other pumpkin-y products are a necessary variable of transformation. (What the necessary variables are is subject matter for another post that in a stroke of irony has to do with “seeing Jesus in a mocha“–not a PSL.)

I have a different theory altogether about the origins of manufacturers’ efforts to pumpkin spice the world at the start of each September.

Last year’s Jack-O-Lantern at my house, carved by Sheila Hunter. Photo by Jill Crainshaw.

Do you remember back in the 1960s when Charles Schulz wrote and produced the animated TV special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? In the show, Linus gives up trick-or-treating on Halloween night and stays awake into the night waiting for the Great Pumpkin to come to his “sincere pumpkin patch”?

The Great Pumpkin never shows up.

My theory? Those of us in my generation (I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide who that is) who sympathized with Linus have spent the last five years filling the void left by the no-showing Great Pumpkin with, well, the spice of pumpkin that doesn’t require an actual pumpkin or even the pumpkin patch.

Spicing Up Life and Sowing Seeds

I love Pumpkin Season. Yes, I know that my frame of mind and my shopping during said season are probably being shaped by the advertising and marketing powers that be. Even so, I relish the first day of Pumpkin Season (September 21 for me, my birthday) and the way it spices up my life rhythms with the promise of autumn.

I also relish the opportunities Pumpkin Season provides for me to sit down in a favorite coffee shop with a friend, enjoy a sip ‘o the season, and delight in the delectable spices we contribute to each other’s lives.

And in those moments of sharing, perhaps we sow seeds (and not pumpkin seeds) that have the potential to transform hearts and minds.

“Harvest Moon, 2018. Photo by Jill Crainshaw.

By the Jabbok

What blessings do we crave?

Held and Holding on

It was night.
And they wrestled.
By the Jabbok.

Jacob. Heel-grabbing birthright stealer. He spends a lifetime outsmarting challengers and dodging confrontations. And he is good at both. When he arrives at the Jabbok, he counts his blessings, names each camel and wife and servant one by one. There are many.

But then he sends them on across the river. Everything that defines him. Everything that hides him in a shroud of self-unknowing.

Tomorrow Jacob will cross the river. To meet his estranged brother, Esau, whose anger has had 20 years to stew in the birthright bowl.

But tonight, Jacob is alone. By the Jabbok.

Jacob’s all-nighter

Was it river canyon wreslemania with backbreakers, chokeslams, and an Undertaker smackdown? Did their feet sink into the mud as they prowled around each other? In Rembrandt’s painting of this scene, a shape-shifting androgynous angel holds a wounded Jacob in an intimate embrace.

Jacob. Holding on and held. Changed. In the marrow of his bones. By the Jabbok.

Preacher and poet James Weldon Johnson imagines such a river. “Up from the bed of a river God scooped clay. And there–this Great God–toiled over a lump of clay until he shaped it in God’s own image. Then he blew into it the breath of life.”

Could that be Jacob? Scooped out of the mud. Created again. By the Jabbok.

But clay sometimes resists

And Jacob had been resisting all of his life–resisting being born second in a system that privileged first-borns (sons, that is), resisting anything that held him back.

So as the sunrises kisses the dust they have kicked up–Jacob is still resisting.

But now, Jacob–changed–resists letting go until he receives a blessing.

What blessing do we crave?

Perhaps wrestling by our lives’ Jabbok has taught us. God, like manna and sea-parting winds, comes to us in the night, when we can’t see what is right in front of us, when answer we had never thought to question come undone.

What takes hold of us then, when illusions about our own strength have been stripped away?

God’s grace. Not manageable grace we can maneuver but wild, fierce, fearless grace stirred up–by the Jabbok.

Perhaps wrestling by the Jabbok has shown us. Though we have prevailed in some things, holding onto those accomplishments means little unless we open ourselves to be held by divine love. Love that might come to us as a stranger. By the Jabbok.

Perhaps wrestling by the Jabbok has taught us–

Jabbok is the struggle to get up in the morning when sorrow has tethered our feet to the night.

Jabbok is twilight tossing and turning to understand or to forgive or to stand up in the face of what we know is wrong.

Jabbok is Ferguson

and Flint.

Jabbok is Mother Emmanuel and Black Lives Matter.

Jabbok is a lifelong nighttime of struggles against injustices.

And Jabbok is also the way home

And Jabbock is also the way home-

Jabbok is the place where we wrestle with an embodied faith that is not fragile. It is where we find courage to speak out against harm done in God’s name.

Jabbok is where we decide to stay in the struggle until God has

unearthed us
created us again
breathed into our bones–life–
by the Jabbok
a heel-grabber becomes a wrestling one who prevails.

Jacob becomes Israel. And we become called ones who whisper into the night who we are and hear breathed out over the river’s tintinnabulation–yes, you are that and more.

As day breaks–

Sunlight might cling to dust stirred up by the midnight mayhem. Jabbok mud may stain our feet for a life time. But that is gift. Because Jabbok could be our road to Emmaus.

Jabbok could be our Pentecost Eve when Spirit winds blow through nailed-shut windows and stir up heart-fires. We dare not forget the night. Or keep our hearts shut off from the blessing that comes in the morning–

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

In the morning, when we cross to the other side of the river: “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept” (Genesis 33).

There is always another river to cross

No permanent dwellings by the Jabbok. Wounded spirits and broken bodies are out there on the other side. And we have learned things by passing by this way that give us endurance to hold vigil with others as they wrestle and joy to dance with them when they arrive home in the morning.

That is the blessing. There is always another river to cross–and on the other side–unexpected, even estranged Holy Others. And there is also the wisdom the God-wrestler speaks through grace-seasoned tears: “To see your face was like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33). Toiling over a lump of mud and breathing into it the breath of life. By the Jabbok.

Note: Former Dean Gail R. O’Day gifted me with a print depicting the story of Jacob and his dream of ladders and angels. That print was hung in my office today. I have been thinking about Jacob’s complex life as I admire the print.

Churchgoer Sees Jesus in a Mocha

To sip together at God’s table, even with strangers, is to share God’s wide-open, life-altering, cosmos-sustaining love and grace.

well, not really, but God’s Spirit was present in that mocha moment. . .

Note: I first wrote this post in June 2015. My mother has since died, and on Sundays I often think about her and our mocha moments. I revisited this piece for #blogtober. As I reread and revised it for today’s post, I realized—many people are hungrier than ever for a glimpse of the sacred, in particular when it is revealed through justice-making and shared hope.

“Churchgoer Sees Jesus in a Mocha.” Can’t we picture such a headline in our news feeds? We have seen announcements like it before: “‘Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese’ Sells for $28,000.” The now-famous grilled cheese was reported to have an imprint of the Virgin Mary’s face on it. It had been stored in a baggie in a bedroom dresser for ten years before we heard about it in the news in 2004.

$28,000? Are we that hungry for a glimpse of the sacred?

Social media outlets have been abuzz recently about churches in survivor mode. Statistics paint a grim picture of the future of institutional Christianity. What are churches offering that people aren’t buying? 

What are we hungry for today?

A mocha stirred up these thoughts for me. You see, I have been seeing something that looks a whole lot God’s Spirit swirling about in a mocha I have a date with each week. 

The mocha itself is at best mediocre. I get it for free from one of those institutional coffee machines you find in hospitals or convenience stores. I press one of six buttons–hot chocolate, mocha, cappuccino (regular or decaf) or coffee (regular or decaf). The machine ponders my choice. Then it grinds and sputters and spits my beverage into a 6-ounce cup.

This particular machine resides in my mother’s senior adult apartment community. When my mother moved to my city, I was glad that the transition was not as difficult as other parental moves I had heard about. My mother pared down her stuff and moved with some ease from her house of 45 years into a studio apartment. The ascetic quality of her new space suits her just fine. 

More difficult was the change her move sparked for me. Overnight my schedule became tied to hers. My mother’s life became less cluttered, mine more cluttered.

That is how the mocha machine came to dispense more than just a mocha. I organize my mother’s medications every week. I also do her laundry. Once these tasks are done, she and I go downstairs to wait for her lunch hour. While we wait, I sip on a mocha.

I have never been a devoted mocha drinker, but the day the mocha machine was “out of order,” I was too. I had come to anticipate drinking that Styrofoam-seasoned, somewhat chocolate flavored drink.

I sat to wait with Mom the day the mocha machine was on the fritz. The stories and conversations went on around me as usual, and I found myself laughing and joining in. The weekly mocha had helped me in those initial months of transition to sit and listen and hear the wisdom-infused storytelling of my mother and her new friends. It had offered Spirit-sweetened seasoning to my caregiving activities.

Now, even without the mocha, I was connected somehow. Perhaps what many churchgoers seek is not unlike what I seek as a caregiver: moments when God’s Spirit sneaks in to stir up and transform.

If people go to church at all, they go seeking moments when their life stories are heard and held with care. They go wanting to experience something about their place in the human community. They go to encounter and even join forces with a God who is working to end injustice and heal our world. Neither exacting doctrinal analysis nor sentimentalized sacramentality will accomplish these things.

But perhaps cultivating holy “mocha moments” can. Coffee shops are popular these days. Many people love to grab a cup of java with friends over breakfast biscuits. Others go to coffee shops to drink their favorite roast at a solo table while working on their laptops. But even those of us who drink our coffee solo at coffee shops are not alone. Not really. We notice, we regulars, when Susan is not at her usual corner table. 

Could it be that we humans seek everyday community-making rituals and sometimes even embrace them as everyday sacred? Hmm … and could this mean that God is already loose and at work in the world? Does it mean that churches don’t have sole (or even primary) responsibility for naming and managing God’s presence beyond their walls?

I say “yes” to all of these questions.

Churches need to think about how their public and spiritual identities can be born again for our hyper-connected, coffee-shop-community times. Churches also need to pay attention to gifts already present in their worship traditions.

I learned as a child to look for Jesus in a bit of bread and a sip of drink. Before I started partaking of communion or learned anything about communion’s theological intricacies, I watched when folks in our church tipped their heads back to drain those tiny cups. I noticed that when my father returned to our pew after communion he had a different smell. I wanted to taste that drink. I wanted to smell different like he did. I also learned as a child that God loves me and others no matter what. God’s grace is about these things.

To sip together at God’s table, even with strangers, is to share God’s wide-open, life-altering, cosmos-sustaining love and grace.

Churches that will thrive in the future will fling open their doors not only to let God’s Spirit in but also to share physical food and drink with hungry people. They will also offer with determined joy God’s gifts of radical welcome and fierce generosity to all people.

Perhaps to the extent that we learn to welcome all—friends and strangers—to our church tables we make possible more of those everyday grace-filled moments when people glimpse something that resembles Jesus, even in a mediocre mocha.